Top 5 Pieces of Environmental Legislation

Despite stalled climate, clean energy bills, Congress has acted in the past.

ByABC News
July 1, 2010, 5:38 PM

July 2, 2010— -- Despite the gushing nudge provided by the Gulf oil spill, the Waxman-Markey climate bill passed last year by the House of Representatives languishes in the Senate.

The Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act looks to be DOA.

All this D.C. gridlock got us thinking: Let's remind our elected officials and their constituents of the major pieces of environmental legislation that Congresses Past were able to pass.

We're not even talking about the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Our five most effective pieces of environmental legislation are the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Montreal Protocol, the Clean Water Act, and Reformation Plan No. 3 of 1970.

Because of these laws, the health of Americans and the environment they inhabit have dramatically improved.

Clean Air Act

By the time President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the first Clean Air Act in December 1963—it was later amended in 1966, 1970, 1977, and 1990—America's air had been under siege for decades.

"It's safe to say that our air was bad and getting worse," says Frank O'Donnell, President of Clean Air Watch, a nonprofit environmental organization. "Many cities were choking in smog."

There was the 1948 incident in Donora, Pennsylvania. On Halloween night, an unseasonable temperature inversion blocked emissions from a zinc blast furnace. A week later, the "Donora Death Fog," as it would come to be known, had finally vanished—but not before 20 people were killed and more than 600 were diagnosed with serious illness.

There was the entire month of October 1954 in Los Angeles, when the worst in a string of smog attacks blanketed the region. Planes were diverted from airports. Children stayed home from school. Over 2,000 automobile accidents occurred in a single day. Two years later, a survey of L.A. doctors found that almost 95 percent had treated the "smog complex"—irritated eyes, cough, nausea, and headaches.

America's air needed a shower.

It got one with the Clean Air Act, the principle law addressing air pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions.

"Climate change aside, it can be documented that the air today is considerably cleaner," says O'Donnell. "The Clean Air Act is still a work in progress, but there is no doubt that it has saved lives."

One of the major provisions of the 1970 amendment was the phase-out of lead-based gasoline. By 1995, the percentage of U.S. children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had dropped from 88 percent to 4 percent, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The good news didn't stop there.

In 2002, a report by the Journal of American Medical Association credited the act's automobile emission regulations with reducing carbon monoxide related deaths, saving 11,700 lives between 1968 and 1998.

And what of the future of the act?

O'Donnell says that as the standards of pollution measurement improve, so, too, should the act. "The Clean Air Act was and is meant to be a dynamic statute. It is not supposed to freeze in time."

Indeed, a living breathing document for a living breathing society.

Hundreds of Species Saved by Endangered Species Act

Endangered Species Act